Eric Church Brings a Dazzling, Disciplined ‘Theater Piece’ to the Country Hall of Fame

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Earlier this summer, Eric Church told Rolling Stone that he’s plotting a Nashville residency at his new bar, Chief’s, when the venue opens in the Lower Broadway entertainment district sometime next year. On Tuesday night, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2023 Artist-in-Residence gave a preview of what that show might potentially look like with an intimate yet dazzling multimedia performance in the Hall’s CMA Theatre.

“I want to do a show that talks about Vegas. It talks about my brother. It talks about things in my life. I’m not going down there to play ‘Drink in My Hand,’” Church told RS in July. All of that was true during Night One of Church’s two-night stand at the Hall of Fame. He paid tribute to the victims of the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 festival in Las Vegas with the unreleased “Why Not Me?”. He honored his late brother Brandon with a surprise appearance by Vince Gill, who sang “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” a song Gill wrote after the death of his own brother. And he celebrated the family unit he forged at home with a show-closing rendition of what he declared his favorite song, “Holdin’ My Own.”

He did not play “Drink in My Hand.”

Still, many of the hits were represented. Seated on a stool at the front of the stage, with his full band huddled together like a gang behind him, Church offered his swaggering debut single, “How ‘Bout You,” his breakthrough toker, “Smoke a Little Smoke,” the massive stadium singalong “Springsteen,” and his homage to the music that shaped him, “Record Year.”  

Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Getty Images for the Country Mus

He delivered the songs in rough chronological order, introducing each one with a montage of soundbites and video clips on a supersized retro TV near the back of the stage. One interstitial segment was based on bad reviews from early in his career, another alluded to the time he was famously fired from a Rascal Flatts tour for playing too long (without mentioning the country trio by name). Yet another referenced the life-threatening blood clot that Church suffered in 2017. The best of the bunch, however, was a frantic voicemail from Church’s now-retired label boss, Mike Dungan, calling to tell his artist that they were pulling down a video teaser for his 2014 album The Outsiders that featured footage of Taylor Swift because of blowback from Swift’s fans.

At times, the soundbites about Church’s rebellious side and his image as a Nashville upsetter became repetitive. We get it, he’s a badass. He best proved that not by having someone tell us, but in the way he approached this challenging performance: in excellent voice, playing guitar on each song, and with a keen eye toward narrative. “Mr. Misunderstood” in particular, with its tempo shift and lyrical shoutouts to Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy, was a marvel.

It’s a fool’s errand (or at least a fun conversation over beers) to try and think of many contemporary Nashville country stars who could pull off such a production. Miranda Lambert could. Chris Stapleton too. But few others have the varied catalog and the steely discipline of Church. Do we really think today’s cosplay cowboys could hold audience interest in a hushed theater by braying songs about small towns they didn’t write?

Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Getty Images for the Country Mus

Country music scholar Robert K. Oermann, who introduced Church’s 90-minute performance, described what fans were about to see as “a theater piece.” That was accurate. As Church has admitted, he was clearly inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show. And while comparisons between the North Carolina native and the New Jersey saint are frequently tossed around, they’re not without warrant. Both have a reputation for playing freewheeling three-hour shows that create a heart-and-soul connection with the audience. At the Country Music Hall of Fame on Tuesday, the guy nicknamed “Chief” did that not with spontaneity, but by attention to detail. And in half the time.

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Church’s spotlight exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Eric Church: Country Heart, Restless Soul, runs through June 2024. He’ll play his second sold-out Artist-in-Residence show tonight.

Eric Church Artist-in-Residence Setlist:
“On the Road”
“How ‘Bout You”
“Sinners Like Me”
“Carolina”
“Smoke a Little Smoke”
“Country Music Jesus”
“Springsteen”
“Talladega”
“Give Me Back My Hometown”
“Mr. Misunderstood”
“Record Year”
“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”
“Some of It”
“Monsters”
“Why Not Me?”
“Go Rest High on That Mountain” (performed by Vince Gill)
“Never Broke Heart”
“Through My Ray-Bans”
“Holding My Own”

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